BOSTON — Ray Brown seemed set up for failure. A single parent in recovery from alcohol and drug abuse, Mr. Brown had just gotten his three children back from state custody in Oregon. He had no car and few resources to support his family.
To make matters worse, his needs weren't being met in his 12-step program. "I'd go with the kids, and there'd be smoking, swearing and behaviors I didn't want the kids to see," Mr. Brown recalls.
Then a friend led him to Relief Nursery in Eugene, Ore. - one of a growing number of programs across the nation designed to stop child abuse and neglect before they occur and help families stay together. Through Relief Nursery, Brown started receiving home visits for help with parenting and recovery. To enable Brown to attend the nursery's peer support group, Parents in Recovery, the nursery sent a van to pick up Brown and his kids and provided a light meal and child care during the group session.
"I don't know where I'd be right now without the support of the nursery," he says. "It provided a safe place to come, with transportation."
Prevention is increasingly billed as a common-sense and cost-effective antidote to American society's problems. Communities in almost every state have started crisis nurseries.
The idea is simple: Give parents a break from kids. In addition to taking children for 36 hours or longer while parents work through a crisis, most nurseries also offer comprehensive services for the whole family, including early childhood programs at the nursery and at home, parent training, support for families going through divorce or other crises, and programs for families dealing with substance abuse.
"When a ... parent is close to ... doing something harmful, it's common sense that they need to take a break" from their kids, says Stanley Turecki, author of "The Emotional Problems of Normal Children." Since 1988, when funds became available for the Temporary Child Care for Children with Disabilities and Crisis Nurseries Act (TCCA), the federal government has given out nearly 100 grants totaling more than $30 million to get crisis nurseries up and running. But even with these new programs, many crisis nurseries are unable to keep up with demand and have to place families on waiting lists, according to a 1991 study.
Relief Nursery, started in 1976, has grown from serving children in eight to 10 families to helping nearly 100 children and their families each year. Its waiting list includes several hundred names.
"Crisis care is an integral component of saving [some families] from destruction - and a whole lot cheaper than placing that child in foster care for a year," says Sue McKinney-Cull at the ARCH National Resource Center for Respite and Crises Care Services, in Chapel Hill, N.C.
"Communities are crying out for prevention alternatives that reach families before a child winds up dead in the emergency room or removed from the home for sexual abuse," says Jeanne Landdeck-Sisco, director of Casa de los Nios - the country's first crisis nursery - located in Phoenix.
In its 23rd year, Casa de los Nios has 58 beds for children, from newborns to 12-year-olds. Parents are often at the poverty level or lower. Many are single mothers. All face at least one crisis that makes good parenting difficult. "They may be homeless, involved in domestic violence, about to enter drug treatment, or separated from their husband and completely without resources; or Mom may need to go into the hospital for an operation," says Ms. Landdeck-Sisco.
According to Relief Nursery, 99 percent of enrolled families are at the poverty level or have an extremely low income; 65 percent have a member with substance-abuse problems; 40 percent are single-parent households; and 24 percent have experienced homelessness in the last year.
One of the crisis nursery's most important functions may be understanding the context of some parents' actions. One day, for example, a woman ended up at Relief Nursery for tying her young children to a tree. It turned out she was afraid for their safety. "She was homeless and camping by a river. She was terrified those kids would run into the river and drown," says Executive Director Jean Phelps. "Before we put out the blame, we need to figure out what's going on ... We're really good listeners, and we have a broad array of programs to offer," she explains.
Most nurseries and parents hook up through referrals by public health and social service agencies, but there is also self-referral. "Parents call us up crying, saying, 'I need help. I don't want to hurt my child,'" Ms. Phelps says.
Crisis nurseries are proving themselves. A University of Iowa study showed a 13 percent decrease in the incidence of child abuse in seven counties with crisis nurseries. Relief Nursery reports that 90 percent of enrolled children were living safely with their families by the end of the year, and of the 11 percent in foster care, more than a quarter were able to return home.
"This is no finger-in-the dike solution," says Phelps. "We've been at this since 1976, and we know you truly can turn lives around with the participation of the families. People have to want to change, but then you have to create the programs that allow them to participate and make that change happen."